Saturday, November 13, 2004

La Brunoise, the whole story

One of the drawbacks of quitting your full-time office job in order to enroll in a full-time pastry school program is the sudden lack of disposable income. Frivolous purchases go out the window. One of the only indulgences left is food. OK, food and kitchen stuff. Both fall under the category of “research.” Trips to restaurants make for great research, but unfortunately they’re one of the first things to go. When you do go out, you’ve gotta make it count, right? That’s exactly what we did last Thursday. With dearly missed guests in town from Vancouver and a red-hot restaurant sitting at the top of my list of research restaurants, the decision was easy (well, easier). We were going to La Brunoise. (How “red hot” are we talking about? Well, we called early this week to make a reservation and got told La Brunoise was booked solid for the next few months. We’d come up with a “plan B” for Thursday night, when suddenly, on Thursday afternoon, we got a call from the management telling us they had room for us “if we were still interested.”) That night, Anthony and I set out into in the wintery weather to meet up with our party at Kazi’s, then we walked the remaining three blocks down to the restaurant.
As we walked in I had one of those “are we in the right place?” moments. The clientele was older, much older, than I had expected, and they were clearly moneyed. La Brunoise has attracted nearly as much attention for its young, hip owners/chefs as its food, I assumed the crowd would follow suit. Our rag-tag party (artist/curator, rock star, linguist/record collector, journalist, pastry student, radio host/musician, PhD candidate, and a federal employee/electronic musician) definitely stood out, but we got a warm, accommodating reception (we’d showed up with an extra guest), so we sat down and made ourselves at home.
The menu at Brunoise is prix fixe, with entrée and dessert included. We picked a red wine from the Pays d’Oc region and an Italian white from the impressive wine list, and a few bottles of sparkling water to quench our thirst.
The amuse bouche was a cup of roasted red onion puree with an ile flotante a la basilique. The puree was delicious, but the ile flotante was the show-stopper—light and airy, with the toasted basil giving it a bit of crunch.
My entrée, and Sydney’s, was asparagus with mushrooms, chevre, brioche and vinaigrette. I know ‘tis not the season for asparagus—and considering La Brunoise announces itself as a “market bistro,” its inclusion on the menu seemed rather strange—but I got tempted nonetheless and I was not disappointed. It was perfectly done, and the chevre and brioche made for excellent accompaniments. Tim, Dan and Patti got the mussels bourride: a beautiful seafood stew with cream and saffron that came in a lovely bowl. Kazi and Anthony had the shallot tartlet with roasted red peppers and romesco sauce. It was fine, but perhaps too fine for an entrée—it might have been better suited as an amuse bouche. Susana got the air-cured duck with beets and vinaigrette. In my opinion, it might have been the standout. I can’t for the life of me remember what Dan got as his entree.
No one can forget that he got the sweetbreads as his main, though. I heard they were fabulous. They never made it to my end of the table. Served with Brunoise bacon and other things I couldn’t see through the throng of people crowding his plate. Dan had never had sweetbreads, but Tim convinced him that he couldn’t go wrong. He finished his plate a convert. Sydney and I got the magret de canard, with candied orange, potatoes and caramelized fennel. In short, unbelievable. Every bite was a pleasure. Kazi and Anthony got the pan-seared scallops with eggplant and roasted garlic-stuffed tortellini and chanterelles. Susana, Tim and Patti got the roasted salmon with lobster glaze, gnocchi and crab foam. An excellent choice. The salmon was artfully prepared and perfectly flaky. The gnocchi were wonderfully delicate.
And for dessert? Four of us chose the panna cotta with basil syrup and passion fruit seeds. We were told it was the restaurant’s signature dessert. For a restaurant that prides itself on its avant-garde presentations, the panna cotta was perhaps boldest statement of the evening. Served in a Mexican earthenware cup, it brought together the restaurant at its most abstract (the panna cotta with its bright green basil syrup and its multi-colored gelatinous passion fruit seeds) and its most rustic (the cup). The texture of the panna cotta was beyond perfect. The basil was refreshing and cleansing, while the seeds gave some texture to the otherwise billowy soft cream. Kazi and Sydney didn’t like it (!) for some reason. Most others pronounced it the best dessert of the lot. Not that the others weren’t comparable. Dan and Susana got the chocolate tart (the darkest I’ve ever had) with white chocolate ice cream and milk chocolate pot de crème. A crowd-pleaser. Sydney got the cardamom cheesecake with sesame tuile. She was disappointed with it, though others enjoyed it. Anthony got the caramelized tarte au citron with raspberry sorbet and candied lemon. Awesome. The sorbet was perfect, as was the tart.
Three and a half hours later we headed back out into the chilly late-night air. The host had been a bit worried at the beginning of the meal when he seated us because he’d had to squeeze four of us on one side of the table (Remember? We’d showed up with an extra guest.). He needn’t have. Our party thrived off the coziness and it also made our flagrant taste-swapping that much easier. The conversation sparkled and we enjoyed our meal at La Brunoise thoroughly.
Go, if you can. Bring dear friends. Enjoy yourself.


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